The Last Unicorn at 40
An Animated Fantasy That Is Truly Timeless
This Review Is Dedicated to Deborah, Who Knows Why and Miles, Who Will Someday
When I was barely a child, animation was in a bad way. Impossible as it may be to believe for anyone under thirty, Disney was at its absolute creative nadir, making its box office not from new films, but from reissuing old ones to theaters. The era of the Warner Brothers and Hanna Barbara was pretty much over except in the cycles of TV reruns. The few animated films that were released at the time were what we would consider action figure cartoons — movies centered on My Little Pony, Transformers and even lesser rip-offs such as the Go-Bots. No one would even think of putting superheroes even in Saturday morning cartoons. The only animator making any profit was Don Bluth and his film were shaky at best and barely even entertaining — back then, An American Tail was the high point of his animated films.
I knew none of this at the time, of course and was one of those who drowned himself in the action figure cartoons, which were the ones the toys were built first and the series around them. My sister felt similarly at times — there’s still a collection of My Little Pony dolls that made it through three separate moves. But even though she was three years younger then me, she always seemed to have a better sense of taste when it came to films then I did. She recognized the genius in the cartoons like Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty that I had to be forced to watch. And though I seriously doubt she knew at the time, there was a film that from the age of six until roughly my adolescence that was, like it often is for children who grew up in the era of VCRs, a film playing on a continuous loop — one that even at eight I was capable of recognizing as brilliant.
The Last Unicorn was made in 1982 by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin. Bass had cut his teeth in the world of animation and stop motion. He had been responsible for some of the true classics of 1960s and 1970s specials including Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Jack Frost, along with various specials involving Rudolph and Frosty the Snow Man. In the 1970s and 1980s to fill the gap that Disney was leaving, he and Arthur Rankin tried animated adaptations of J.R.R Tolkien — then the only medium possible to realize Tolkien’s vision. Both The Hobbit and The Return of the King can charitably be viewed as deeply flawed; the latter in particular is nearly incomprehensible even if you have read all three books. He didn’t surrender to the idea and in the early 1980s began to work on an animated project even more ambitious: a film that cost the enormous sum of 3.5 million dollars and wasn’t even based on a book nearly as popular. The screenplay for the film was written by the book’s original author: Peter Beagle. And the cast of voice actors he and Rankin managed to assemble would have been considered an all star lineup for an Oscar worthy drama in the 1980s, much less an animated film. How did he manage to sway Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Alan Arkin, Tammy Grimes, Christopher Lee, and Keenan Wynn to appear in a form of film that you might well have presumed was on its death throes in 1982? I have no answer then or now, all I can do is be in awe of the results that still astonish me nearly four decades after the film was made.
In the opening of the film, we meet a unicorn (Farrow). She is spotted by two hunters, who almost casually mention that she must be the last one. This sends her reeling. Unicorns are immortal, they can be hurt, they can even die, but they can’t vanish. Then she tries to remember the last time she saw another of her kind. And she can’t.
She is then visited by a butterfly (voiced by Robert Klein as a creature who flightiness is expressed in nonsense poems and anachronistic songs). She spends several minutes trying to get him to acknowledge what she is, and has all but given up when he does. In a moment of solemnity, he tells her that the Red Bull has captured them all and driven them into the sea. She is unable to know whether to trust it, but knows she must find out.
Early in her adventure, she is captured by Mommy Fortuna (Lansbury), a zookeeper of the mythological. Because a unicorn can see the truth behind everything, she sees that all her creatures are frauds, except for a harpy. When she confronts Fortuna on is, she mocks her by saying the masses no longer believe in myth — “I had to give them a horn they could see!” Her assistances are the hunchback Ruhk and the magician Schmendrick. (All of Beagle’s names are chosen deliberately; Schmendrick is from the Yiddish.)
Schmendrick (Arkin) wants to help her, but like everything else in Fortuna’s world, he’s a fraud. He wants to be a magician, but doesn’t have the confidence yet: he can only free her by stealing the keys. The Unicorn escapes and frees all the creatures, including the harpy who is the only truly dangerous one. When it is released it kills Ruhk and Fortuna, who in her last breath actually seems proud at her prisoners for defeating her.
Schmendrick joins the Unicorn’s quest and tells her he has heard of the Red Bull and that he belongs to King Haggard, who has never smiled. As they continue on their way, they meet a group of outlaws led by the egotistical Captain Cully (Keenan Wynn) and his cook Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes). Everyone is sick of Cully’s self-mythologizing and when Robin Hood and his Merry Men show up in an illusion, they are far more interested. “Robin Hood is a myth! We are the reality!” Cully insists to no avail as his band dispersed. The message would seem to be that even in the world where beliefs are changing many would rather hold on to legend.
Molly believed in unicorns in her youth, and is actually unhappy to finally see one now. “How dare you come to see me when I am this?” she practically shouts at her. It doesn’t stop her from joining the quest to save her kind. In another movie, Schmendrick and Molly would be at the very least a secondary love story; there is not even a suggestion in the film that they feel anything other than friendship during their time together.
They finally approach Haggard’s realm and they encounter the Red Bull. Schmendrick, who still doesn’t seem to have true magic, finally casts a spell of protection — only he turns the Unicorn into a woman. This is a critical point in the film, and not just for the reasons that will become obvious soon. We have been told that unicorns are incapable of feeling regret, anguish, love… in short, anything resembling human emotions. (This is clear even by the fact that they don’t consider themselves individuals: Farrow’s character is known only as Unicorn, as if identity is not something they value) Now she has inherited not just the body of a woman, but the feelings of one.
The second half of the movie takes place in the realm of Haggard (Lee). His court is Spartan to say the least, and one of the only soldiers he has is his son Prince Lir (Bridges) Lir is basically a cliché, the dashing knight and he is instantly taken with this woman. You get the feeling he’s basically used to having anything he wants. But when all the quests of mythology fail to work on his new prospective conquest, he can’t seem to understand why. “She just looked at me and I was sorry I killed the thing. Sorry for killing a dragon!” he tells Molly in frustration.
Rather than tell you exactly how the movie unfolds — because while you might call it a happy ending (the characters wouldn’t, a separate issue which I’ll get to) its not the one you expect — I’ll discussion some impression that the movie makes on me now as a critic that it didn’t as a child, and maybe not even a few years ago.
First to state the obvious: this isn’t a movie for children. Roger Ebert spent decades reviling the pinheads at the MPAA who gave R ratings to movies that teenagers would have benefited from seeing. I don’t recall him ever giving a similar tongue lashing to giving rubber stamping G rating on so many movies that no doubt left scars on many people who grew up watching them. The Last Unicorn isn’t an outlier; The Secret of NIMH and All Dogs go to Heaven have so much violence and adult themes at their core, you wonder how anyone could think to consider them fit for six year olds, and even some of the Disney films of the era — I’m thinking of The Black Cauldron in particular — had images that no doubt gave nightmares to the few who saw them. Nor was this held to animated films: The Never-ending Story is one of the most nihilistic pieces of film marketed for children and even Jim Hensons films of that era have a very creepy undertone. (Would any parent today feel comfortable letting a toddler watch Labyrinth?)
Even based on those standards, Last Unicorn clearly wasn’t meant for audiences like me and my sister when we watched on a loop. I don’t just mean the fact that there’s so much that makes a G rating questionable: there are numerous uses of the word ‘damn’, there are violent ends where we actually see the killing, and though she isn’t anatomically correct, the Unicorn has to have clothes put on her when she is transformed into a woman. I’m not even talking about the fact about the darkness of the film as a whole: there’s very little sunlight in this movie, and it’s almost entirely serious. The few laughs that are scattered are almost inevitably leads up to far more serious and dire situations.
No, what I am saying is unlike most animated (and indeed films in general then and now) The Last Unicorn has subtext and layers that a child would miss and even some adults on repeated viewing. A lot of this because, unlike almost every animated film I’ve ever seen, Unicorn is driven more by its dialogue then its images. That doesn’t make it talky; far from it, the characters all have intelligent and deep things to say and you don’t want to miss a word. And they’re not strictly speaking always talking about the plot, they’re talking about the world they inhabit and whether the age of unicorn has passed and what it means to be human.
This implies to how we see Haggard. When I was a child, I was inclined to see him as a villain, the monster who had robbed the world of its unicorns. On repeated viewings, he strikes me as sad, almost pathetic. His castle is crumbing and decaying; when we first meet him, he is impersonating a knight because he doesn’t have an army. Molly and Schmendrick become his cook and court jester respectively, and when we see the interior, it’s clear that it’s been neglected for a long time. Even Lir, who he calls his son, is not really his child: he has adopted under false pretenses and though Lir clearly loves him as a father, he can’t return the affection.
Those of us who know the work of Christopher Lee would be shocked at how restrained he is in this movie. I now theorize (and based on how Lee researched the source material for his roles, I think I’m not talking out of school) that he voiced Haggard not as a villain, but as a man who has some fundamentally part of him missing and knows it. When he explains why he took the unicorns from the world, he actually says: “Nothing makes me happy…but their shining and their grace.” Is it a villainous and horrific act? Yes. But I defy anybody who has ever lived who has not at one time or another felt that something fundamentally was missing from their lives and would give anything they had to get it back. How many biographies of the rich and powerful do we read only to learn how unhappy they were? Are the unicorns essentially Haggard’s ‘Rosebud?” There’s only one time in the entire film when Haggard actually raves like a proper villain and when the target of his villainy doesn’t know what he is talking about, he seems more unhappy then before. Similarly the only moment of pure triumph in his voice comes when he is about to die having lost everything as if even the fact of his fate matters less than knowing he was right in the end.
The overall tone of the film is unlike any animated film I’ve seen before: it is tinged in utter despair. The colors are dreary, almost no one smiles, and the few songs (written by the pop band America) are not anthems but ballads of people who can not understand the world they live in any more. At one point, Lir tells the Unicorn: ‘A happy ending can not come in the middle of the story.’ Even as a child, I thought he was talking to the audience. Molly asks about the nature of the happy ending and Schmendrick is blunt: “There is no happy ending…because nothing ends.” I can’t see any Disney or Pixar movie, even ones as bleak as WALL-E or as haunting as Up, having so blunt or fatalistic a message. Even when the Unicorn realizes her quest, she no longer feels as if she truly belongs with her own any more. The movie doesn’t seem to end conventionally rather than suggest a continuation to some journey, but what world will they live in?
This is a film I would have sat in a theater any time for a sequel or a film in the same universe. But no doubt because of all the reasons I have listed in my review, it became a cult success rather than a box office one. And in a world where every other film coming out of Hollywood is remake or a reboot, no one — not Peter Jackson, certainly not Disney — has ever tried too or is likely too. It’s too grim, too literate, and too real, even for a fantasy world. But like the title character, I feel no regret. That’s what makes unicorns special.
My sister has always shared many of the same interests I have. We spent our youth watching MGM musicals and Astaire and Rogers’s films. In the era of Peak TV, we have bonded over many of the same films and TV series as we have grown older — Mad Men, House of Cards, The Americans were shared loves. She had a thing for Scandal, but youth will have its fling. Last year, she had a son. I would hope that when he is old enough to appreciate it, she will show him The Last Unicorn and that he will be able to appreciate it is she did and I have. Then I remember she’s my sister and she found this film in the first place. And I realize I don’t have to worry about that.